We did it! *runs around screaming* Sweet Filthy Boy made it into the final 8 of the #dabwaha (like March Madness for Romance) and we are so giddy thrilled screaming READY TO KISS YOUR FACES. In case you missed it, we posted the Hanna and Will outtake: How Jensen Finds Out for winning the last round, and as promised we have THE FIRST CHAPTER OF BEAUTIFUL SECRET! Here. Today. Like right now! There will also be another Will & Hanna outtake headed your way and the possibility of even more if we can make it to that final four (CLICK HERE TO VOTE!).
Beautiful Secret hits stores April 14th and you can preorder your copy at amazeball bookstores/retailers such as:
- Thank you again and we hope you love Niall and Ruby as much as we do. WE LOVE YOU GUYS!
“I’m not saying I bet his cock is massive, but I’m not not saying it, either.”
“Pippa,” I groaned, covering my face in horror. It was seven thirty on a Thursday morning, for God’s sake. She could not possibly be drunk already.
I aimed an apologetic smile at the wide-eyed man standing across from us, and wondered if I could speed the elevator up with the power of my mind.
When I glared at her across the elevator, Pippa mouthed, “What?” and then held her index fingers up about a foot apart. She whispered, “Hung like a bloody horse.”
I was saved from having to apologize again when we stopped on the third floor and the doors opened.
“You realize we weren’t alone in there, right?” I hissed, following her down the hall and around a corner, stopping at a set of wide doors with Richardson-Corbett engraved into the frosted glass.
She looked up from where she was digging through her enormous purse, the bracelets on her right forearm clinking like wind chimes while she searched for keys. Her bag was huge and bright yellow and covered in glittering metal studs. Under the brash, fluorescent lights, her long red hair looked practically neon.
I was dark blond and carrying a beige crossbody; I felt like a vanilla wafer standing next to her.
“No! That guy from accounting was standing right across from you. I have to go up there later and, thanks to you, we’ll share accidental, awkward eye contact while we remember you saying cock.”
“I also said ‘Hung like a bloody horse.’ ” She looked momentarily guilty before turning her attention back to her bag. “Guys in accounting need to loosen up, anyway.” Then, motioning dramatically to the still-dark hallway in front of us, she said, “I assume we’re acceptably alone for you?”
I gave Pippa a playful curtsey. “Please. Go ahead.” She nodded, brows drawn in concentration. “I mean, logically it’s got to be huge.”
“Logically,” I repeated, biting back my grin. My heart was doing that flip-tumble thing it always did when we talked about Niall Stella. Speculating on the size of his penis might be my undoing.
With a victorious thrust of her arm into the air, Pippa brandished the keys to the offices before fitting the longest of the set into the lock. “Ruby, have you seen his fingers? His feet? Not to mention the fact that he’s about eight feet tall.”
“Six foot seven,” I corrected under my breath. “But hand size doesn’t necessarily mean anything.” We closed the door behind us and flipped on the main office lights. “Lots of guys have big hands and aren’t especially gifted in the Man Parts department.”
I followed Pippa down the narrow hall to a roomful of desks in a smaller, far less opulent corner of the third floor. Though cramped, our little section of the office was at least cozy, which was lucky considering I spent more of my time there, working, than in the tiny flat I rented in South London.
Richardson-Corbett Consulting may have been one of the largest and most successful engineering firms in all of Europe, but it kept only a handful of interns on staff at a time. Soon after graduating from UC San Diego, I’d been thrilled beyond belief to snag one of the spots. The hours were long, and the money had immediately quashed my shoe habit, but the sacrifice was already starting to pay off: after completing the first ninety days of my internship, an actual metal nameplate had replaced the piece of masking tape with the name Ruby Miller scribbled across it, and I’d been moved from what was no more than a closet on the second floor, to one of the joint offices here on the third.
I’d breezed through high school and survived undergrad with only the occasional freak-out. But moving half-way across the world and rubbing elbows with some of the finest engineering minds in the UK? I’d never worked so hard for anything in my life. If I managed to finish this internship as well as I’d started it, a spot at Oxford in the graduate program of my dreams would be mine. Of course, finishing it well most likely involved not talking about executives’ cocks in the elevator at work . . .
But Pippa was just getting started.
“I remember reading that it was wrist to the tip of the middle finger . . .” she added, and used her fingers to measure the length of her own hand, and then held them up to further illustrate her point. “If that’s true, your dream man is packing.”
I hummed, hanging my coat on the back of the door. “I guess.”
Pippa dropped her bag to her chair and leveled me with a knowing look. “I love how you try and look all disinterested. Like you’re not staring at his junk whenever it’s within a ten-foot radius of you.”
I tried to look indignant.
I tried to look horrified and come up with some sort of argument.
I had nothing. In the past six months, I’d logged so many covert glances in Niall Stella’s direction that if anyone was a qualified expert in the topography of his crotch, it would be me.
I tucked my purse in the bottom drawer of my desk and pushed it closed with a resigned sigh. Apparently my covert glances hadn’t been quite as covert as I thought. “Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure his junk hasn’t ever, and won’t ever, be that close to me.”
“It won’t if you never speak to him. I mean, look, as soon as I get the chance I’ll snog that ginger in PR till he cries. You should at least talk to the man, Ruby.”
But I was already shaking my head and she snapped me with the end of her scarf. “Consider it research for your Structural Integrity class. Tell him you need to test the tensile strength of his steel girder.”
I groaned. “Great plan.”
“Okay, then someone else. The blond chap in the mailroom. Always has his eye on you.”
I made a face. “Not interested.”
“Ethan in contracts, then. He’s short, all right, but he’s fit. And have you seen him do that tongue trick at the pub?”
“God, no.” I sat down, slumping under the weight of her inspection. “Are we really having this conversation now? Can’t we just pretend my enormous crush is not a thing?”
“Afraid not. You’re not interested in any of the other lads, but won’t make a play for Mr. Uptight, either.” She sighed. “Don’t get me wrong. Stella’s fit as fuck, but he’s a bit on the prim side, wouldn’t you say?”
I ran a nail along the edge of my desk. “I sort of like that about him,” I said. “He’s steady.”
“Stodgy,” she countered.
“Restrained,” I insisted. “It’s like he’s stepped right out of an Austen novel. He’s Mr. Darcy.” I hoped that would help her understand.
“I don’t get that. Mr. Darcy is short with Elizabeth to the point of rudeness. Why would you want someone who’s so much work?”
“How is that more work?” I asked. “Darcy doesn’t lavish her with false praise or compliments that mean nothing. When he says he loves her it’s because he does.”
Pippa plopped down into a chair and turned on her computer. “Maybe I like a flirt.”
“But a flirt is that way with everyone,” I argued. “Darcy is awkward and hard to read, but when you have his heart, it’s yours.”
“Sounds a lot like work to me.”
I knew I’d always been a touch on the romantic side, but the idea of seeing the restrained hero unleashed in a way no one else did—uninhibited, hungry, seductive— made it hard for me to think about anything else when Niall Stella was within a four-foot radius.
The problem was I became genuinely stupid when he was around.
“How can I ever hope to have an actual conversation?” I asked her. I knew I would never actually act on it, but it felt good to finally talk about this with someone who knew him, someone other than London and Lola, who were half the world away. “You know, one where we both know we’re having the conversation? During last week’s meeting, Anthony asked me if I could present some data he’d had me organize from the Diamond Square project, and I was kicking ass until I looked up, and saw him standing behind Anthony. Do you know how hard I worked on that? Weeks. Then one look from Niall Stella and my concentration was shot.”
For some reason I was unable to call him by only his given name. Niall Stella was a two-name honor, like Prince Harry or Jesus Christ.
“I stopped speaking mid-sentence,” I continued. “When he’s near me, either I blurt out ridiculous things, or I turn into a mute.”
Pippa laughed before her eyes narrowed and she looked me up and down. She picked up the calendar and pretended to scrutinize it. “Funny thing, I just realized it’s Thursday,” she sang. “That explains why your hair looks particularly sexy, and you’re wearing that minxy little skirt.”
I ran my hand through my chin-length, choppy hair. “It looks like it does every day.”
Pippa snorted. In truth, I’d spent way too long getting ready this morning, but I needed the confidence today.
Because just like she said, today was Thursday, my favorite day of the week.
On Thursdays I got to see him.
In most respects, Thursdays shouldn’t have been anything to get excited about. That particular Thursday’s to-do list included such mundane chores as watering the sad little ficus Lola insisted I smuggle the 5,400 miles separating San Diego from London, typing up a bid proposal and sending it out in the mail, and putting the recycling out on the curb. A life of glamour. But pinned to the top of my Outlook every Thursday was also Anthony Smith’s engineering group meeting, where, for one hour every week, I had an unobstructed view of Niall Stella, Vice President, Director of Planning, and, Holy Hell, The Hottest Man Alive.
If only I could add him to my to-do list, too.
An hour of prime Niall Stella time was both a blessing and a curse, because I was interested in what was happening in our firm, and found most of the discussions that took place between the senior partners to be absolutely fascinating. I was twenty-three, not twelve. I had a degree in engineering and would be their boss one day if I had anything to say about it. That a single individual had the power to hijack my attention was beyond mortifying. I wasn’t usually flighty or awkward and I did date. In fact, I’d dated more since moving to London than I had back home because, well, English Boys. Enough said.
But this particular English Boy was, unfortunately, beyond my reach. Almost literally: Niall Stella was over six and a half feet tall and effortlessly refined, with perfectly styled brown hair, soulful brown eyes, broad muscled shoulders, and a smile so gorgeous, on the rare occasion it made an appearance at work, it brought my train of thought to a screeching halt.
According to the office gossip, he had finished school practically as an infant and was some sort of legendary urban planning mastermind. I hadn’t realized that was an Actual Thing until I started working in the engineering group at Richardson-Corbett and saw him advise on everything from Building Control guidelines to the chemical composition of concrete additives. He was the unofficial final word in London on all bridge, commercial, and transport structure blueprints. To my utter heartbreak, he even once left in the middle of a Thursday meeting to direct a construction team when a panicked city worker called because another firm had botched a foundation design and concrete had already been poured. Virtually nothing got built in London without Niall Stella’s hand in it somewhere.
He took his tea milk first (no sugar), had an enormous office on the third floor—far from mine—clearly never had time for television, but was a Leeds United man through and through. And although he was raised in Leeds, he went to school at Cambridge, then Oxford, and now resided in London. Somewhere along the way Niall Stella had developed quite the posh accent.
Also: recently divorced. My heart could barely take it. Moving on.
Number of Times Niall Stella Had Glanced at Me During Thursday Meetings? Twelve. Number of Conversations We’d Had? Four. Number of Either of These Events He Might Actually Remember? Zero. I’d been wrestling with my Niall Stella crush for six months, and I was pretty sure he still didn’t know that I was an employee at the firm rather than a regular takeout delivery girl.
Surprisingly, because he was almost always one of the first to the office, the man in question wasn’t here yet. I’d checked—a few times—craning my neck to see through the mass of bleary-eyed people filing in through the conference room door.
Our meeting room was lined with a wall of windows, each looking out onto the fairly busy street below. My morning walk to work had been relatively dry, but as it did most days here, rain had begun to drizzle from a sky heavy with clouds. It was the kind of rain that looked like a harmless haze, but I’d learned not to be fooled: three minutes outside and I’d be soaked through. Even if I’d grown up somewhere rainier than Southern California, I could never have been prepared for the way the London air, between October and April, felt almost saturated with water, heavy and damp. Like a rain cloud had wrapped itself around my body and seeped straight into my bones.
Spring had just begun in London, but the little courtyard across Southwark Street was still dismal and bare. I’d been told that in summer it was filled with pink chairs and small tables belonging to a restaurant near the back. Right now it was all concrete and mostly naked tree branches, damp brown leaves blown across the stark ground.
Around me, people continued to voice their displeasure with the weather as they opened up their laptops and finished their tea, and I blinked away from the window in time to see the last few stragglers rush in. Everyone wanted to be seated before Anthony Smith—my boss and the firm’s director of engineering—made his way down from the sixth floor.
Anthony was . . . well, okay, he was a bit of a jackass. He ogled the interns, loved to hear himself speak, and said nothing that sounded sincere. Every Thursday morning he relished making an example of the last person to walk in, sharply commenting with a saccharine smile on their outfit or their hair so everyone in the room would have to watch in leaden silence as they found the last empty seat and sat down in shame.
The door squeaked as it opened. Emma.
Emma lingered, holding the door open for someone.
Voices sounded from outside the room, growing louder as they came in. Victoria and John.
And then, there he was.
“Showtime,” Pippa muttered next to me.
I saw the top of Niall Stella’s head as he stepped in just behind Anthony, and it was as if the air had been sucked from the room. People and chatter blurred around the edges and then it was just him, expression neutral as he seemed to instinctively take in who was there and who was missing, his shoulders wrapped in a dark suit, one hand tucked casually into the pocket of his dress pants.
The urgent, fiery feeling in my chest grew.
There was something about Niall Stella that made you want to watch him. Not because he was boisterous or loud, but because he wasn’t. There was a quiet confidence about him, a way he carried himself that demanded attention and respect, and a feeling that while he wasn’t talking, he was watching everything, noticing everyone.
Everyone except me.
Having come from a family of therapists that discussed everything, I’d never been the silent type. My brother, and even Lola probably, would start calling me a chatterbox when I really got going. So the fact that I of all people couldn’t manage a single articulate thing when Niall Stella was within touching proximity made absolutely zero sense. What I felt for him was a distracting kind of infatuation.
He didn’t even have to attend Thursday meetings; he just did, because he wanted to make sure there was “cross-departmental consensus” and so his planning division “could at least have a working engineering vocabulary” since it was Niall Stella’s responsibility to coordinate engineering with public policy and his own planning division.
Not that I’d memorized everything he’d ever said at this meeting.
Today he wore a light blue shirt beneath a dark charcoal suit. His tie was a mesmerizing swirl of yellow and blue, and my eyes moved from the double Windsor knot at his neck to the smooth skin just above, the heavy curve of his Adam’s apple, the sharp jaw. His normally impassive mouth was turned down in consternation, and when I made it up to his eyes . . . I registered with horror that he was watching me eye-fuck him like it was my job.
I dropped my gaze to my laptop, the screen blurring out with the intensity of my stare. The flurry of telephones and printers from the outer office flowed in through the open door, seeming to reach a crescendo of chaos, and then someone closed the door, signaling the start of the meeting. And as if the room had been vacuum sealed, all noise came to an abrupt stop.
“Mr. Stella,” Karen said in greeting.
I clicked on my mail folder, ears ringing as I strained to hear his reply. One breath in, one breath out. Another. I typed in my password. I willed my heart to slow down.
“Karen,” he said finally in his perfect, quiet, deep voice, and a smile spread unconsciously across my face. Not just a smile, a grin, like I’d just been offered a giant slice of cake.
Dear God, I am in so deep.
Biting the inside of my cheek, I worked to straighten my expression. Judging from the way Pippa’s elbow connected with my ribs, I was pretty sure I failed.
She leaned toward me. “Easy, girl,” she whispered. “It was only two syllables.”
The door opened and Sasha, another intern, slipped in with a wince. “Sorry I’m late,” she whispered. A glance at the clock on my laptop told me she was actually perfectly punctual, but Anthony of course wouldn’t let it slide.
“All right, Sasha,” he said, watching her squeeze awkwardly between the long row of chairs and the wall as she made her way to the empty seat in the far corner. The room pulsed with silence. “Lovely jumper. Is it new? Blue is a great color on you.” Sasha took her seat, her cheeks brilliant red. “Good morning, by the way,” Anthony said with a wide smile.
I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. He was such an asshole.
Finally, the meeting started in earnest. Anthony went down his list of questions for each of us, papers were passed around, and as I swiveled in my seat to hand the stack to the person on my right, I glanced up. And nearly swallowed my tongue.
Niall Stella was only two seats away from me.
From beneath my lashes I looked at him, the angle of his jaw—always clean-shaven, never even a hint of scruff—his thickly lashed eyes and perfect, dark brows, his impeccable shirt and tie. His hair looked so smooth in the dim light of the conference room. I actually frowned when I noted it would probably be soft, too—because of course it would be—and I wondered for the hundredth time what it would be like to run my hands through it, tug him down, and—
“Ruby? Did we hear back from Adams and Avery yet?” Anthony asked.
I straightened in my chair and blinked down to my laptop, having stayed up late with this file just last night.
“Not yet,” I said, with barely a waver in my voice. “They have our plans, drafted and ready for signature. But I’ll double back with them if I haven’t got a call by the end of the day.”
And okay, yeah, that was startlingly articulate considering how Niall Stella had turned his full attention to my face.
Pretty damn happy with myself, I typed up a quick reminder and propped my elbow on the table, tugging on a strand of hair as I scrolled through my calendar.
But something felt off. I sat in this chair for one hour every week, and I was almost certain that I’d never felt what I was feeling now. It was a pressure on the side of my face, the actual physical weight of someone’s attention.
I twisted the hair around my finger and casually glanced at Pippa. Nope, nothing.
With what I assumed to be a subtle lean forward, I craned my neck farther, glancing to my right, and immediately froze.
He was still looking at me. Niall Stella was looking at me.
Really looking. Light brown eyes met mine and held what could never be called a glance, but a full-on look.
His expression was curious, as if I were a new piece of furniture someone had just randomly placed in the room. My heart took off, pulse pounding in my veins. Inside my chest, everything felt liquid and wild, and if someone had yelled Fire! I’d have gone down in flames, because there was absolutely no way I could control even a single thing happening to my body.
“Niall,” Anthony said.
Niall Stella blinked before looking away from my face. “Yes?”
“Do you mind giving us the status from Planning on the Diamond Square proposal? I want my team to get you some specs by the end of the week but we don’t know the dimension of their shared space . . .”
I zoned out as Anthony, predictably, phrased his question in a way that made it about seven times longer than it needed to be.
When his question drew to a close, Niall Stella shook his head. “The dimensions,” he said, and began shuffling through a stack of papers in front of him. “I’m not altogether sure I’ve got them—”
“The dimensions were set to be finalized this morning,” I answered for him, and explained that the permits would be delivered no later than tomorrow. “I asked Alexander to send a copy of the blueprints this afternoon.”
The room went so silent I worried for a minute I had simply lost the ability to hear.
Except everyone was staring at me. Oh my God, what had I done?
I’d interrupted without thinking.
I’d answered a question clearly not meant for me.
I’d answered a question he definitely knew the answer to.
I felt my brows pull together. But then, why hadn’t he answered?
I leaned forward and looked at him.
“Good,” he said. Quiet. Deep. Perfect. Shifting in his chair, he met my eyes and gave me a flicker of a grateful smile. “Forward it along?”
My heart had completely left my body. “Of course.”
He was still looking at me, clearly as confused as I was over what had just happened, but pleased in a mysteriously lingering way. I wasn’t even sure what prompted me to speak up. One minute Niall Stella was looking at me, and the next he was fumbling as he tried to recollect data and answer a question I was sure he could have answered in his sleep.
It was almost as if his mind was elsewhere. It was something I’d never seen happen before.
“Now for the big news,” Anthony said, glancing through a stack of papers before handing them off and getting to his feet. I looked up, jarred by the change in his tone. Anthony loved having the attention of the room, and from the sound of it, he was gearing up for something big.
“The New York subway system was built with the idea that one-hundred-year storms happen only every hundred years. Unfortunately, that is not reality. Disasters like Hurricane Sandy have proven that what was once planned for once every century, has happened every few years. The US is spending billions, with talk of raised entrances and floodgates, and given that we’ve worked extensively with the London Underground, they want our input, too. So I’ll be gone for one month to attend an International Summit on Emergency Preparedness for public transport, air travel, and urban infrastructure.”
“One month?” a senior engineer asked, echoing what we all had to be thinking. I wondered if anyone was also echoing my mental fist pump at the idea of an Anthony-free office for so long a stretch.
Anthony nodded in her direction. “There are three separate summits taking place. Not everyone who is invited is staying for the duration, but given that our firm specializes in both public transport and urban infrastructure, Richard decided that he’d like us there for the lot of it.”
“ ‘Us?’ ” asked one of the executives from Niall Stella’s department.
“Right,” Anthony said, tilting his head to the left. “Niall will be accompanying me.”
“You’re both going away for a month?” I blurted, instantly wishing I could take my words back and shove them down my throat. I was an intern. One of Anthony’s unspoken rules seemed to be that we didn’t speak at this meeting unless asked a direct question. I could feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on me again. Even worse? I could feel his, pressing on my skin, probing.
“Er, yes, Ruby,” Anthony said, clearly a bit confused.
He walked around his chair to stand beside me, hands tucked into the front pockets of his pants. “But no worries, I know you’ve got the Oxford Street project nearly wrapped up, and my being gone won’t affect signing off on that in any way. If you need anything from me, you can always call.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling the heat slowly fade from my face. “That’s good to know, thanks.” Of course Anthony thought my burst of word vomit was because I was worried that he was leaving—you know, my boss?—and that perhaps his absence might somehow interfere with my work.
“Smooth,” Pippa said, as her long oval nails clicked across her keyboard.
“Shut uuuup,” I moaned, sinking lower in my chair.
I had no idea whether Niall Stella was still looking this way, and the twelve-year-old part of me wanted to drag Pippa into the ladies’ room and have her replay the scene, moment by moment.
But I knew that would be a mistake. The first day he seemed to actually notice me and I blew it, acting like some kind of psycho. I couldn’t take her telling me that he’d made that face in my direction, the one where he frowned and looked like someone had just spilled cream on his hand-tailored suit.
I’d rather we go back to him not knowing I was alive.
The end of the day found me at our long, shared desk, sorting through a stack of permits. My Diet Coke had grown warm, and I was counting down the minutes to a hot bath and a hotter book when my email chimed, signaling an incoming message.
“Finally,” I sighed. I’d been waiting for a confirmation number all day, and now—maybe—I could go home.
Or maybe not.
Pippa yawned next to me and stretched her arms over her head. It was already dark out and the walk to the Tube would be cold and wet. “Can we go now?”
My shoulders dropped. “Actually, that was an email from Anthony,” I told her, frowning at my screen. “He wants to see me in his office before I go and I can think of at least a hundred other things I’d rather do instead.”
“What?” she said, leaning over to peer at my monitor. “What does he want?”
I shook my head. “No idea.”
“Doesn’t he have a watch? We were supposed to be gone twenty minutes ago.”
I typed out a quick reply, letting him know I was on my way, and began shutting things down for the night. “Wait for me?” I asked Pippa.
Pausing mid-drawer slam, she gave me a sad little frown. “I’ve got to hustle, I’m sorry, Rubes. I waited as long as I could, but I’ve loads to do tonight.”
I nodded, feeling somehow uneasy being left in the offices alone this late with Anthony.
The halls were empty as I stepped into the elevator and headed to the sixth floor.
“Ruby, Ruby, come in,” he said, pausing where he’d been pulling a few things from around the room and arranging them in a box on his desk. Had he been fired? Dare I hope?
“Close the door and take a seat,” he continued.
I felt a frown tug at the corner of my mouth. “But nobody’s here,” I said, leaving the door open.
“Why did your parents name you Ruby?” he asked, eyes making a slow circuit of my face.
My frown deepened. What? “Um . . . I’m not actually sure. I think they just liked the name.” Anthony clung to several old business rules, one of which included keeping a crystal decanter of scotch on a table behind his desk. Had he been drinking?
“Did I ever tell you that my gran was named Ruby?”
I eyed the scotch, trying to remember how full it had been the last time I was in here.
Anthony walked around his desk and took a seat on the corner nearest me. His thigh pressed against the side of my arm and I shifted in my seat.
“No, sir. You didn’t.”
“No, no, don’t call me ‘sir,’ ” he said, waving a hand in protest. “It makes me feel like I could be your dad, remember? Call me Anthony.”
“Okay. Sorry . . . Anthony . . .”
“I’m not your father, you know,” he said leaning forward, and there was a pregnant pause. “Not nearly old enough.”
I tried to be subtle about the full-body shudder that rolled through me. I’m fairly certain that were it possible, Anthony would literally ooze over the desk, to pool at my feet. And then he’d look up my skirt.
“But that’s not why I called you in here.” He straightened and pulled a file from a stack on his desk. “I called you in here because there’s been a change in plans.”
“As it happens, something’s come up and I’m not able to go to New York.”
What did this have to do with me? Did he really think I’d been so worried about him being gone that he needed to personally update me?
I swallowed, trying to look interested. “You’re not?”
“No,” he said, smiling in a way I assumed was meant to look generous, indulgent even. “You are.”
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